Only a hobo; Dylan’s re-working of several traditional songs, finally rescued by Rod Stewart

By Tony Attwood

I have “Only a Hobo” down as a 1963 composition, but there is a recording on the internet which lists it as 1962.   We know that it was recorded on August 12 1963 as part of the sessions for the “Times they are a changing” album, but was not used.  It eventually was released on the Bootleg 1-3 album.

Now I am sticking with 1963 for the moment, despite the existence of the recording said to be from 1962 because of the sheet music.  I know it is hard to read on the screen but this certainly seems to say 1963.

This page was described in the auctioneer’s catalogue when sold as…

“Mimeographed copy of sheet music to the song ‘Only a Hobo,’ 8.5 x 11, signed at the bottom in pencil, “Bob Dylan ‘63” adding a line from the song, “He was only a Hobo, but one more is gone!” 

We also know that in March 1963, Dylan recorded the song at Broadside’s office, with Broadside then releasing it on the album, Broadside Ballads, Volume I.  For copyright reasons the song is credited to Blind Boy Grunt.  So maybe 1962, but I think 1963.

This song takes us back to Man on the Street  and forward to the Loneseome Hobo and ultimately with a different perspective Drifter’s Escape – in which the drifter, the hobo, finally wins through and those who treat him with disdain and indifference (the cursed jury of Drifter’s Escape) get their comeuppance.

So the hobo is another of Dylan’s themes, closely related to the blues singer who plays enough to earn food and drink for the night and is on once again.  Related to the character in “One too many mornings.”

And just as the theme is very old in music, so is the music itself.  Here we need to think back to songs like “Only a Miner Killed”, or “Poor Miner’s Farewell,” as well as songs such as “A tramp on the street”.

“Only a miner killed” had lyrics by John Wallace Crawford (known as Captain Jack).  A later variant was recorded by Aunt Molly Jackson…

Poor hard working miners, their troubles are great,
So often while mining they meet their sad fate.
Killed by some accident, there’s no one can tell,
Their mining’s all over, poor miners farewell!

Only a miner, killed under the ground,
Only a miner, but one more is gone.
Only a miner but one more is gone,
Leaving his wife and dear children alone.

Here’s a beautiful modern version of Only a Miner

This version by Bob, has an introduction all of its own, and the “1962” inscription.

And by way of comparison here is “A tramp on the street”

And the song, here recorded by the Carter Family which is often considered as the origin of the whole sequence of songs mentioned above…

 

Dylan’s words are not particularly original or well drawn but for sheer emotive appeal within such a simple format it is hard to fault the work…

As I was out walking on a corner one day
I spied an old hobo, in a doorway he lay
His face was all grounded in the cold sidewalk floor
And I guess he’d been there for the whole night or more

Only a hobo, but one more is gone
Leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song
Leavin’ nobody to carry him home
Only a hobo, but one more is gone

From here on the song covers a few more details of the poverty of the man’s existence

A blanket of newspaper covered his head
As the curb was his pillow, the street was his bed
One look at his face showed the hard road he’d come
And a fistful of coins showed the money he bummed

Dylan plays the emotional card for all it is worth in the lyrics, but somehow for me his own versions of the song in the 1963 recordings don’t seem to match in the music what is conveyed in the scenes drawn in the lyrics.  For that, most curiously, we had to wait for Rod Stewart.

 

It is said in some quarters that after hearing this version Dylan went back to the song and tried to record it again, but still could not achieve what Rod Stewart managed.   Thus this recording is one of the oddities of this type of music.  The person who you might not expect to be able to make the most of the song, produces the final perfect version.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there.

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5 Responses to Only a hobo; Dylan’s re-working of several traditional songs, finally rescued by Rod Stewart

  1. Hello there Tony, yes another interesting essay about a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/476/Only-a-Hobo Come and join us inside and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers, free, legally and without Ads.

  2. protestfolk says:

    Didn’t early Dylan just get the melody and lyrical pattern from John Greenway’s recorded version of “Poor Miner’s Farewell, that can be heard 4 minutes into the youtube video at following link? https://youtu.be/S7cA3ez3fCE

  3. irene says:

    yes definitely Rod Stewart does it best.. but why does the pictures of “hoboes” show people from a apparently different country than the USA, like a third world country where poor people are are insuch abundance. The song is about hoboes in the US

  4. Motorhead says:

    I think Dylan hadn’t realized he’d written (lyrically, that is) a country song and not necessarily a folk song. By 1971, with his Nashville experience behind him (as we hear on the Bootleg Series Vol. 10), one can hear the story of the song and the emotion being brought to the fore in a way missing from the more folk oriented approaches of the Whitmark demo and the Times They Are A-Changin’ sessions. I’m not saying that Rod Stewart’s version isn’t good but I happen to feel the song reached it’s zenith with Happy Traum in Sept. of 1971. My wife, who is not into Dylan as I am (which is putting it mildly) was floored when I stacked demo and studio version up against the 1971 version. As soon as Dylan started singing she said “Wow” and didn’t say another word until the song was finished.

    To me Only a Hobo is a study in growth and the idea that nothing is ever truly set in stone. The song, by 1971, represents the clearest form of musical growth in Dylan’s career. We can hear the folk roots that drew him to New York, the lyrical ability that makes him such a compelling songwriter, and the long roads through London, Woodstock, and Nashville. I’m not suggesting that is it Dylan’s greatest recording. What I am saying, though, is that the song represents the clearest, simplest picture of Dylan’s evolution and his genius as an artist. Mississippi is yet another example.

    To simply cut the story of the song off at 1963 doesn’t do Dylan or the song justice, in my opinion. Great read. Sorry I just found it! Take care!

  5. Pud Memory says:

    I agree with Motorhead above about the version with Happy Traum from 81. It is sublime.

    I love all the tracks with Happy from GH vol 2.

    But let me also point out another track from Another Self Portrait: This Evening So Soon.

    So good. Give it a listen.

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